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Interview with Martin Smith

Martin Smith, Sheffield United’s goal scoring winger, remains a Sunderland fan despite being released from the club during the summer. Following his move, we thought it would be nice to chew the fat about the good old days, and see how he is. When we spoke to him he had just got himself a computer: “I’ve just started and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been trying to find the Sunderland Website, but I’m lost. It’s not happening for us.”

First things first, what does he think of his new club?

“Aye, it’s a big club. Nice stadium and that, like. I think it’s just like what Sunderland was about five, six years back, but they’re still suffering from a few years back when people like Brian Deane were here on very high wages. They put all their eggs in one basket, got promoted but came back down. For an area as big as Sheffield, you would have thought both United and Wednesday would be doing better. Mind, I’m sure United will.”

So come on, it had to be asked, did he choose Sheffield United because they played in red and white?

“Of course. Well, there were a few clubs interested but I worked with Adrian Heath in the reserves last year and that was one of the big reasons I came. He knew what I was capable of and I thought if anybody could give me a bit of time to settle in and find my feet, it’d be him. He hasn’t really had to give us that time ‘cos it’s gone so well. Adrian Heath is cool. As I say, the reason I came is because I trained with him last year and I found his training great and all that. He’s alright to get on with. We’re playing more direct here than the reserves at Sunderland to be honest. We’re getting into their half more, getting up there and battling for it, sort of thing. I think we started off trying to play too nicely and things weren’t going so well, he’s sort of changed it a bit.”

Was there ever a chance he would have ended up elsewhere?

“There was interest from QPR and Burnley. Ipswich was the main one. Ipswich offered us a deal but I didn’t fancy it to be honest. I got promised something off them and they said that if I went down and proved myself, which I did, they’d sort me out, but they didn’t offer us anything near what they said they were going to, so, I thought that was a bad start. I suppose the distance was a factor as well. They’re a really good side though. When Sheffield played them, in the first half we couldn’t get a kick. Then, in the second half we changed our formation, went out and they didn’t get a kick. We could’ve beat them. They’ll not run away with it like Sunderland did last year. It’ll be tight up there all year I think. Nobody’ll run off with it.”

“Birmingham will be up there along with Ipswich unless they get injuries, because they’ve not got a big squad. Blackburn will still come good; they will find their feet like we did the first year. Sunderland came down and struggled ‘til about Christmas. They’ve got a lot of quality players and I think they will still pull through. United haven’t played Fulham yet and I haven’t seen anything of them. I haven’t got Sky at the minute so I haven’t seen anything on television. I’d imagine they’d be up there with the money they’ve got. I do know that Clarkie got sent off and Melville scored an own goal for them though!”

… and how did he feel about leaving Sunderland?

“I was devastated to leave. It’s all I ever wanted to do really, play for Sunderland. I was totally settled there, all me mates are there but I knew from round about Christmas time that I was going to have to move on. All the wingers at the club were injured and I still couldn’t get into the side. That’s when it sort of hit home, that I was going to have to be leaving. We were playing Crewe at home and I wasn’t even sub. It’s times like that when you think ‘hang about.’ It was a wrench, but it’s something you have to do as a footballer. But I’ve been pretty lucky with the way I’ve come here to Sheffield and started well.”

How would he feel about playing against Sunderland now?

“I think I would play as well as normal, I’d be up for it because I’d want to prove to people that they were wrong not to play me more. I’d have a point to prove. It would be strange, but I’d have to do my job. I don’t know if I’d celebrate if I scored, like. If it was in front of the Sunderland fans, I think I’d just wait to see what they did to me first. If they gave me the V’s then maybe I’d have a little celebration, but I don’t know. It’d be strange. I don’t think, unless we get promoted that it’ll happen for a while.”

“I don’t miss Sunderland as much as I thought I would. I suppose if things weren’t going so well here, I would have probably missed it a lot more. Obviously I still try and get up every now and again, but I’ve got a house down here now. We had the weekend off last week and I didn’t even bother coming up. I went to the Newcastle game; I came up to watch that. I had to be there. I’ve been to them all for the last God knows how long. I was at the play-off game and that was one of the best nights of my life. I just thought that I had to get there. Mickey Gray managed to get me two tickets and I went with Steve Brodie who’s at Scarborough still.”

“I had a couple of pints before the game so we were singing a bit. One of the Newcastle fans recognised me because I was diving about, singing and all that. He’s like “Fucking Smith! You. I’m going to fucking kill you outside.” I went and saw a couple of the lads in the players’ bar afterwards, they were over the moon and then I just went home. I had to walk through the streets of Newcastle without getting stabbed afterwards.”

“It was a bit scary after the game. I must admit, but I think it would have been worth a couple of digs just for the result. I still look for the results and I still speak to the Lads but time has moved on and I’ve got to make a go of it here.”

“Jody Craddock’s been down and I think he’s made a difference. Since he’s come we haven’t been beat. He’s settled in really well and he’s playing superb to be fair. I think he wants first team football but I think he’ll be aware that if he comes here and shows he’s playing well, he’ll probably have the chance to go back to Sunderland and stake his claim. I’d be surprised if they sell him anyway, because I don’t think it’s the biggest squad in the world. I don’t think they can look at off loading people anyway. If Jody wasn’t here on loan, he’d be playing in the cup games.”

Was he surprised Reid didn’t recall him when Helmer left?

“Well it’s the first month, you’re not allowed. The second and third month, you have a twenty-four hour call back.”

Never shy to go out when he was at Sunderland, we wondered how Sheffield compared as a city?

“I haven’t been out yet, if you can believe that. Last Saturday night, I went out for a couple, but that was just down the local and it’s like The Woolpack down here where I’m living. It’s quiet. I’ve got sheep for neighbours. I’m about twenty minutes out of Sheffield, right in the countryside. So it’s a bit different from what I’m used to, but it’s all right.”

What did a Mackem like Smithy make of Clarkgate, and was he surprised?

“I was and I wasn’t. Everybody knows he’s Newcastle through and through. But I’ve heard a few stories that this T-shirt was chucked on him and it was a quick photograph. Mind, he had to go. I don’t think the Sunderland fans would’ve stood for it really. From his point of view, it’s a difficult situation if you’re with loads of pissed up lads. He might have just been there wanting a quiet time, so he just did it for them. You don’t know the circumstances. You don’t know whether to keep him because he’s a great player for Sunderland, he’s done magic. It was a tough decision. You can’t say whether it was right or wrong of him really. It’s one of them catch 22s. He used to talk about the Mags and that, but it was just a bit of friendly rivalry between the Sunderland lads and him.”

What about Bridges?

“I thought he’d leave. People were saying it was about the money, but I don’t think it was. It wasn’t about money at all. I think Bridgey just wanted to play. He was getting to the stage where he was coming on and scoring goals all the time and you do that, you want to go that one step further and you want to be playing. He never complained about not getting in because Quinny and Kev were always playing so well. It’s not something where you’re going to go banging on the manager’s door about, saying, “Look, drop one of them,” because they were playing fantastic. It’s another difficult one because you get to the stage where you just want to play. It was similar with me.”

In light of what has happened with Johnston, does he regret the move?

“Hey, you have got some right testers for me here. I’m trying to be a bit diplomatic. People said that with Bridgey and Jonno leaving. I’d have thought about it a bit more, but I wouldn’t have because of what I said earlier – when the wingers had been injured, I hadn’t been given the chance to play anyway, so I don’t think it’d have made that much difference.”

He was keen to find out about Michael Proctor’s injury.

“Me Ma said yesterday. He’s out for the season, isn’t he? Aye, I remember because I wondered. I thought he would’ve been involved against Walsall and I mentioned it to me Mother and she told us he’s injured. It’s a shame for the lad because there would probably have been a chance for him to step up. Now we’ve got rid of Bridgey and that, there’s only Dich.”

Time to move the conversation on to cover his Sunderland career more generally.

“I made my debut under Terry Butcher against Luton and scored from a dodgy free kick, that went straight through the wall. From then I played every game until he was sacked, which was only about six games. Obviously, it was my fault. Then we had Mick Buxton. Everybody calls Mick Buxton, because of the era, but I always stick up for him because he was the manager who used to say, “go out and do what you want” and that was ideal for me. Things were just great then for me. The team that Peter Reid inherited and went up with, the year after Buxton got the sack wasn’t a lot different to that side. Which obviously says a lot for Peter Reid. We still had the nucleus of the squad that Mick Buxton had: there was Scotty and Aggers, people he brought in and played most of the season with. He put Ordy centre half and put Mickey on the right wing.”

Would we have gone down if Reid hadn’t replaced Buxton?

“I think probably at the time we would have. I mean the Lads’ confidence was shot to pieces and everything. We played Sheffield United at home in Reid’s first game and it was massive. We kept it tight that game. I think if Mick Buxton had been there, we might have struggled and gone down. I scored three in the last three games – Swindon, Burnley and West Brom. Swindon was the big one. They’d have gone above us, and it meant we went to Burnley needing a draw to keep us up. Peter Reid came in and there was a buzz around the place, the fans came more because Peter Reid was a high profile name and they got behind us. I remember going Burnley and it was absolutely out of this world. You’d have thought it had been a home game. If Buxton had been there, would we have had that following to cheer us on?”

“The following season I think I played about 13 or something. I got injured. I had to have a hernia operation when we played Man United in the cup at home. That kept me out for ten weeks. Then I couldn’t get back in, the usual story. The start of a pattern there!”

“The next season was the Premiership and I got sod all. About eight league games I think. Just on the bench. The travelling man, I had become known as the official pie tester. After all the highs of the England caps and that it was really frustrating. In fact, the last couple of years have probably been about as low as you can get for me. I probably didn’t look after meself as much as I could’ve, especially when Mick Buxton was there and I was in the team and doing well, week in week out. I was probably drinking a bit more than I should’ve, but things were going great, so I thought “This is easy this, why change it?” As you get older, you start to realise that you just can’t do it. I probably wasn’t as fit, and Peter Reid came in and demanded that from his players, so I probably started out on the wrong foot.”

“I remember I got meself fit, I went to a fitness coach for three weeks and I was flying. I lost about a stone. I’d put that much on, but at the time you don’t realise what a fat get you are. My whole game was a lot better. Now I’m 11 stone 10, where before I was up to nearly 13 stone. When you’re fit, the whole game’s easier; everything’s just much better. I came back and played against Liverpool and got meself sent off. I went in on John Barnes and it all kicked off, didn’t it. Then Scotty ran in and Rob Jones give me one and that was it, we were both off. Me and Rob Jones couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag. I missed three weeks of the season, because all the games were on a Saturday and that sort of knocked the stuffing out of me a bit as well.”

When we were taking the Martin Smith: Son of Pelé T-shirts for ALS on the pitch at Roker Park, Smithy was stood next to the corner flag, where the Fulwell End met the Main stand. He curled the ball, so it ran down the tunnel, which you can’t actually see from the corner flag, an unbelievable three times in a row. Could he do that all the time or was he just lucky that day?

“All the time, every time, right foot and everything… could I bollocks. I can remember doing it, but I can’t remember doing it three times in a row. I think that must have been the last time I did it.”

Do the Butlers come round for tea?

“Don’t even go there, man. It was all blown out of proportion in the press.”

Favourite Player?

“I like watching Zola. He’s class, he’s frightening man. Out of this world some of the stuff he can do.”

Best goal for Sunderland?

“Probably the one against West Brom. It came across and I hit it side-on, scissors kick with my right foot.”

Last film watched?

“Mickey Blue Eyes. It was crap. That Matrix was good, have you seen that? The one with Keanu Reeves. I enjoyed that.”

Favourite books?

“Mucky ones. Actually, now that Mickey Bridges has moved to Leeds, he’s probably had to hire a van to shift all of his dodgy magazines! Mind, he’ll probably have a new supplier down there already.”

Favourite band/album?

“Most Indie really. I still like listening to the Verve’s old albums, the Stone Roses and Oasis. The Stereophonics are good.”

Favourite holiday destination?


Favourite female?

“I think I can answer this one because we don’t live in Sunderland any more, so my girlfriend won’t see this: Pamela Anderson. If there’s a Sheffield edition of S&C, I’m in trouble.”

Penthouse or Loaded?

“Loaded. Most of the girls are too nice in Penthouse. I like a bit of rough!”

Blondes or Brunettes?


McDonalds or Burger King?


Pepsi or Cola?


Lager or bitter?


Annabels or Ku?

“Ku. That’s a new question that. Where did you pull that one from?”

Marmalade or jam?


Briefs or boxers?


Money or fame?


Cup or league?


Anything else you’d like to say before you get back to your Internet porn?

“I’d just like to thank the Sunderland fans for all their support. They never once turned on me when I was out of the side for about three years, but I always got on well with them, I just hope I see them at a few games this year. I’ll be going to games when we’re playing down this area and I’ll be in amongst you.”


Left Wing Politics

A few weeks back I was watching the highlights of the Manchester United v Arsenal game and after watching the goals, flash points and fist-fights, there was no doubt in my mind that Roy Keane was the unparalleled man of the match. His game-winning double strike and hilarious dust up with Patrik Viera were class. Roy Keane, like Allan Johnston, has yet to sign a new contract. Also like Allan Johnston, Roy Keane's contract is up for renewal at the end of the season. The main difference between the two is that, despite his insistence on waiting until the summer to decide upon his future, Roy Keane is still playing for treble-winners Manchester United. Allan Johnston, on the other hand, has been reduced to training with the youths and has yet to be given a reserve team appearance, let alone a place in the first team.

Despite uncertainties surrounding his future, Roy Keane has inspired the Republic of Ireland to the verge of the European Championships, in sharp contrast to Magic who plodded about for an hour looking woefully short of match practice in possibly the worst game ever seen in the history of football (Scotland v Estonia). Alex Ferguson is playing Roy Keane despite his contract situation, because he knows the team is better with him included. Peter Reid is not playing Allan Johnston because of his contract saga and was initially persisting with out-of-position Gavin McCann on the left-wing, until he swapped him with Schwarz against Leicester. Despite the improvement in performances since, Johnston's exclusion has been to the detriment of the team. So who's right?

Some of the local press seem unaware of the views of the majority of supporters regarding Reid's firm stance against disloyalty. It is easy for Reid to turn Johnston's situation into a stance against player power, using the example of McManaman to show that players in this position can approach the game with less than 100% commitment. On paper, this argument seems well-founded. However, it is just as easy to cite examples of players in the same position enjoying a rich vein of form - Anderton and Keane for starters, though Johnston's agent, Blair Morgan, currently represents another thirteen players who are in exactly the same situation, all of whom are playing first team football. Throughout the league there must be hundreds of players in this situation. To my knowledge, Johnston is the only one who is not being played. Surely the point here is that after two seasons of inspiration down the left flank, Allan Johnston deserves the chance to prove his commitment. Play him, watch him, and if he is performing under his ability (or, to use a favourite Reid idiom, if he is "No better than what we have already"), drop him.

The worst thing about the whole situation is that the fans are being completely misrepresented. In a report in the Journal, it was said that "Fans initially expressed their concern at the manager's stance, but Sunderland's encouraging start to the season has re-affirmed their belief that he knows exactly what he is doing." Now hold on, but signing a German International, paying him reputedly in excess of £20,000 a week for a month or two, deciding that he has no role to play in the first team and then letting him go on loan for the rest of the season, selling our most promising youngster to one of our rivals, signing a right winger to play on the left wing and then playing a 5 foot 6 footballer as a target man against Arsenal doesn't tend to suggest that "he knows exactly what he is doing." Not one Sunderland fan that I have spoken to believes that Peter Reid "knows exactly what he is doing." So where did that particular story come from? It makes you think that the newspapers simply don't know what they are talking about. Which leads me to another point.

The September 9th edition of the Sunderland Echo ran the front-page lead: "Sort your act out!" beside Johnston's photo and on the back page went with the headline "Sort it out, Allan! Scottish boss tells Johnston to resolve his club future." However, at no point in the article, penned by the Echo's most experienced Sunderland reporter, Graeme Anderson, are these headlines substantiated. Closer inspection of the piece reveals that whilst Brown admitted that, in hindsight, Johnston was not match fit and he therefore would not have played him given a second chance to pick the side, at no point is he quoted as making any comment whatsoever as regards Magic's future. This being the case, the piece is both leading and biased - and although this is the fault of the headline writer, not the reporter, it is nevertheless an example, in my opinion, of how the fans are being manipulated into the official club stance.

The simple fact is that we, as fans, don't know what the hell is going on. We have heard, countless times, all parties churning out the same old story: "We want it sorted, it's not our fault, don't blame us." Yet all this amounts to is lots of talk and very little action. Every report in the local press urges Allan Johnston to sort his future out. The Echo even went so far as to print what was on the verge of an open letter to the Scottish winger, which placed almost all the blame on Johnston's shoulders and exonerated Peter Reid of any blame whatsoever. I believe that this is completely unfair.

Allan Johnston committed himself to a three-year deal with Peter Reid. He has said that at the end of the deal he wishes to take stock of his career before deciding where his future lies, just as he did at Hearts before he moved to Rennes in France. Purely because Johnston will not extend his contract, the three-year deal has, in playing terms, become a two-year deal. What signals does this send out to other players that Reid is trying to attract to the team? Is Reid saying "Sign this contract for three years, but if you won't sign a new one on my terms in two years' time then you will only play for two and spend a further year doing nothing, whilst we waste the fans' money paying your wages for doing nothing?" This is not player but manager power. If Reid fears his departure, then, on purely economic grounds, he should sell him now before his value depreciates to nothing. However, he is unlikely to be sold from the training ground and needs to be placed in the first-team shop window. A cynic might say that dropping him from the first and reserve squads is little more than blackmail to force him into agreeing a new contract on Reid's terms.

In giving Johnston a squad number and including him in the squad photo at the start of the season, Reid will say he has offered olive branches. However, these can be seen as empty gestures, aimed at showing Reid in a favourable light and making Johnston appear the bad guy. It doesn't matter that the door is always open for the Scot if, once he's through it, the manager is not prepared to talk, compromise and seek a solution to the problem. As things stand, the door is only open if Johnston gives in. The only way for Peter Reid to demonstrate how much he wants Magic to stay is to give him his first team place back and let him wait until the summer, when he wants to decide upon his career, then let him make up his mind.

In light of how he has been treated, it is almost certain that Magic will leave for nothing come May. However, money is not something we lack, whilst attacking flair is. There is a lack of quality left-sided players in this country, and in the months since the feud broke out, Reid has invested £3m on Oster and Fredgaard in an attempt to replace him which, at this stage, has failed. We picked him up for next to nothing, he's already paid back his transfer fee and I'd rather have a season of his skill than the £3m we'd get for him if he left now. One thing is for sure, if the situation remains as it is, Johnston will miss out on playing and Sunderland Football Club will pay his wages until the summer when he will leave, for nothing. The club suffers, Johnston suffers and the fans suffer - it is a no win situation. To quote Spike Lee, Peter Reid, "Do the Right Thing."

Chris Wray
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